As the ’80s gave way to the ’90s, the Jeff Lynne-ification of popular music became so pervasive that even fans of the Electric Light Orchestra frontman were ready to cry uncle. When Lynne was at his most prolific—in the Traveling Wilburys era—seemingly every other record on the radio sported a snappy snare and a ropy twang. But there’s been a paucity of new Jeff Lynne music lately, either as a producer or performer. ELO became the go-to band for commercials and movie soundtracks about a decade ago, but the last full-on Lynne project was the poor-selling (albeit excellent) 2001 ELO album Zoom. Since then, Lynne’s been relatively quiet, aside from the occasional collaboration with old pals like George Harrison, Tom Petty, and Joe Walsh.
Now Lynne’s back with two new albums: Long Wave, a collection of covers of pre-Beatles pop and rock songs, and Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best Of Electric Light Orchestra—the latter of which, contrary to its title, is actually a set of ELO songs re-recorded by Lynne. Neither is essential. In fact, a cynical person might suggest they smack of product: factory-made nostalgia designed to coerce coffeehouse patrons into an impulse purchase. Mr. Blue Sky in particular is a head-scratcher. Lynne has said he was inspired to take another crack at classics like “Strange Magic,” “Turn To Stone,” and “Livin’ Thing” because when he hears the old versions on the radio, they don’t sound like he remembers them. So these aren’t re-imaginings in any significant way. They’re almost identical to the originals, with a few tweaks in instrumentation to bring them into line with Lynne’s current sense of how they should be. Mr. Blue Sky is the musical equivalent of George Lucas changing a few of the special effects in the Star Wars films and then re-issuing them (again).
Long Wave, on the other hand, is actually pretty delightful, perhaps because it’s just such a pleasure to hear that telltale Lynne sound again, after it’s been absent from the airwaves for so long. Plus, Long Wave is short—just 11 songs in 27 minutes—so there’s not much time to wonder whether the world needs another cover of “Smile” or “Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing.” Once the album kicks off with the multi-tracked vocals and crunching guitars of “She,” it’s pure Lynne candy for the next half-hour, with the veteran rocker making like a space-age Everly Brothers on “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad),” and aping a robotic big band for his take on “Beyond The Sea.” Though Lynne’s long been identified as a Beatles disciple—and though he does his best sleepy John Lennon voice on a number of Long Wave songs—this record clarifies the place that music halls, roadhouses, and ’50s radio broadcasts played in shaping his aesthetic. Judging by Long Wave and Mr. Blue Sky, he’s more inspired playing with someone else’s music these days than he is in revisiting his own.